Commentary

Speed bias?

Updated: April 30, 2009, 4:18 PM ET
By Randy Moss | Special to ESPN.com

Trainer Todd Pletcher had just witnessed Dunkirk -- the 3-year-old he believes might be his first Kentucky Derby winner -- outkicked in the final furlong of the Florida Derby by Quality Road. He had just experienced the adrenaline rush of seeing Dunkirk's explosive move to the front, immediately followed by the sobering reality that second-place money might not be enough to get his talented colt into the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

With those emotions swirling, Pletcher was interviewed by ESPN's Jeannine Edwards about Dunkirk's performance.

Pletcher called out the Gulfstream Park track surface as unnecessarily speed-favoring, and said he should have run Dunkirk in the Wood Memorial instead.

So was the Gulfstream strip souped-up to the advantage of frontrunners?

To me, the track was somewhat speed-favoring in one-turn races, but the 'bias' word might be a little strong.

My opinion has always been that too many handicappers see a track bias lurking around every corner, when in reality an actual bias comes along only once in a while. When a series of improbable results can be tied directly to a certain running lane or running style, that is when the bias card should be played. Last Saturday's Gulfstream results do not fit that description.

In the first race, talented Nick Zito-trained maiden Just Ben ran superbly at 9-5 odds, followed home by 8-5 favorite Mighty Score.

Next, 4-5 frontrunning favorite Santana Six chalked up a Beyer Speed Figure of 95 compared to his 94 five weeks earlier (if a bias moved him up, it wasn't by much).

Senor Leche raced with the lead and won comfortably as the 5-2 favorite in a maiden claimer predictably dominated by speed types.

The upset of 3-5 Nicanor by 4-1 Glittermans Cartel is the example most often given as strongest evidence of a speed bias. Glittermans Cartel was closely pursued by Nicanor throughout, earning a 93 Beyer Speed Figure. In that race, stretch runners Juliano and Zagarello duplicated their earlier figures.

Vitruvius, Groomedforvictory and Motovato provided a shocking trifecta at 3-1, 2-1 and 3-1 odds, rallying from third, sixth and seventh.

In the Swale Stakes, This One's For Phil and disqualified Big Drama hit the wire together at 8-5 and 9-5 odds. Fourth-place Brave Victory came from last in a career-high figure.

The way Dunkirk rocketed around the field in the Florida Derby hardly suggests a strongly speed-oriented track.

And in the last race, top three Jacoby's Run, Hennigan and Street Talk'n Man went off at 3-1, 7-1 and 3-1 odds. At the first call, they were fifth, fourth and seventh, respectively. Each ran about the same figures they'd been getting.

This is evidence of a powerful speed bias?

Any slight tendency toward speed might have been more the result of a 30mph gale blowing against the horses down the stretch, which most experienced horseplayers believe hurts closers who must make up ground into the teeth of the wind.

Meanwhile, the lightning-fast Gulfstream surface (two track records were set during the afternoon) was glib all week. Based on the Beyer track variants, the surface was actually slightly slower Saturday than it had been Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Having said all this, Dunkirk still might have run a better race than Quality Road in the Florida Derby - but because of pace.

The early fractions made the Florida Derby among the slowest-paced of dirt preps thus far. Quality Road's tactical speed and patience gave him an advantage over Dunkirk, who was farther back than expected and launched a powerful burst leaving the three-eighths pole that I timed at :11.7 for a furlong and :24.1 for a quarter-mile in his stakes debut and only the third start of his career.

If Dunkirk makes it into the Kentucky Derby field -- and the odds are probably slightly in his favor at this point -- a quicker pace could see Pletcher celebrating instead of searching for explanations.

Randy Moss has been an analyst for ESPN/ABC Sports thoroughbred racing coverage since 1999.

Randy Moss

Horse Racing
Before joining ESPN in 1999 as the network's chief horse-racing analyst, Randy Moss covered the sport for more than two decades for the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram and the Arkansas Democrat.